Katherine Howe’s new YA novel Conversion alternates between two narratives. In one, contemporary high school student Colleen Rowley’s senior year at the high-pressure St. Joan’s Academy for Girls is interrupted by the outbreak of an unexplained illness. In the other, set at the beginning of the 18th century, a woman confesses to the role she played as a teenager in perpetuating the Salem witchcraft panic of 1692. Taken together, the two stories dare their reader to rethink the differences between past and present, rumor and truth, and science and magic.
BookPage caught up with Howe to find out more about her writing process, her most influential book and her unusual family history.
Conversion is based on a real-life, recent incident at a New York high school. What about this event intrigued you most?
When I first stumbled upon the story about the mysterious ailments at the high school in Le Roy, New York, I was in the middle of teaching The Crucible to my historical fiction seminar at Cornell and an hour’s drive away. The parallels struck me immediately. Most strikingly, in each case—Salem on the one hand and Le Roy on the other—a group of adults developed their own agendas about what was happening, while the teenagers at the center of it were having their own experience that I didn’t think was being fully explored. I was interested by the fact that the symptoms and behaviors are best understood as an expression of the intense stress and pressure under which adolescent girls must live in our culture. In many respects it was much, much harder to be a teenager in the 1690s (especially if you were an indentured servant or a slave). But I think it’s important to talk about the fact that even with all our scientific advances and technology and feminism and progress, teenage girls are still under so much stress that sometimes their bodies literally can’t take it. I wanted to write a story that would give us a way to talk about this.
You are a direct descendent of two of the women accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials. How has this impacted your identity and your career?
Three, actually, I just learned! Serves me right for messing around on the Internet instead of working. Most women who were accused as witches in the early modern period were accused because they were out of step with their culture in some way—they were argumentative, problematic, opinionated, sometimes angry. I certainly feel a kinship or solidarity with women who had that set of traits at a time that sought to punish them for it. The biggest impact on my career is that my first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, looks at Salem from the witch’s point of view, just as Conversion looks at Salem from the afflicted girls’ point of view. I’ve spent most of my career thinking and writing about witches in North America.
"I think it’s important to talk about the fact that even with all our scientific advances and technology and feminism and progress, teenage girls are still under so much stress that sometimes their bodies literally can’t take it."
While they’re doing homework one day, Colleen’s friend Deena expresses disinterest in history (“Who cares? It already happened.”). You obviously disagree, as a running theme of Conversion is the complex relationship between the past and the present. Why do you think studying history is important?
I don’t want to recycle the Santayana chestnut about those who do not study history being condemned to repeat it, but I do think that only by studying history can we really understand our present. When I was in high school I felt the way Deena does; I thought history was just about memorizing a long list of battles and dates and who was president when, and who cares? But it’s so much more than that. History explains our conflicts, illuminates our ingrained assumptions and can bring depth and nuance to our mythologies. History tells us not only who we are, but why, and how.
Colleen’s study of The Crucible influences the way she thinks about what’s happening around her. When you were a teenager, was there a book in your life that shaped your thought process in similar ways?
To be honest, as a high schooler I was profoundly influenced by Huis Clos (No Exit), the well known play by Jean-Paul Sartre. It depicts three people—two women and a man—trapped in a room that is decorated only with three Second Empire sofas, a mantel clock and a letter opener. It turns out that they have all been damned, and that hell is just this—a room, with other people. I loved the way that this work of fiction reconceived our assumptions about a cultural trope—what hell is like, with pitchforks and imps—while at the same time advancing an existential philosophical position. I have Huis Clos to thank for the reading I went on to do in existentialism in high school, which led to a philosophy major in college. I went on to other study, in art and American history specifically, but I’ve never fully moved away from the philosophical habits of mind that I learned as a teenager.
Your descriptions of academic life at a prestigious high school are spot-on, from Advanced Placement courses’ nicknames to the awkwardness of Harvard alumni interviews. You attended the Kinkaid School in Texas, a school similar to St. Joan’s. How was your high school experience similar to, or different from, Colleen’s?
While there might be a few similarities between Kinkaid and St. Joan’s, they’re really quite different. For one thing, St. Joan’s is a Catholic school, and my own school didn’t have a religious affiliation, so I had to interrogate some Catholic school alum friends for details. Another big difference is that Kinkaid is co-educational, and some of my closest friends from high school were (and still are) guys, while Colleen is in an intense single-sex environment, which winds up being an important part of her story. New England and Texas also have very different regional personalities; I doubt that Colleen and her friends heard George Strait at prom. But they are similar in that I was fortunate to attend a school that placed a high value on academics, and encouraged the students to express themselves and their intelligence to their full potential. I think that curiosity, and the ability to satisfy that curiosity, is the most important skill to acquire in high school. I’m lucky that Kinkaid did that for me.
Colleen and Ann, the two narrators of Conversion, live in very different times and speak in very different ways. What was it like to write in two such distinct voices?
I really enjoy trying to find authentic voices for my characters. One way to do it is to learn as much as I can about slang and everyday speech for whatever period I’m writing in. Ann wouldn’t use words like “cool” or “awesome” unless she were describing temperature or religious revelation. But that doesn’t mean she would speak formally like a character on Masterpiece Theater. She was a teenager, and she would use slang, just like Colleen would. Trickier is that teenagers also use language that I might not want to necessarily write; I cussed like a sailor when I was in high school, but I don’t think that adds to a story necessarily. So for her voice I spent a lot of time listening to the college students in my town, trying to absorb their rhythms and turns of phrase.
Can you tell us a little about how you researched Ann’s sections, and how you incorporated historical sources into your fictional interpretation of her story?
The cool thing about the Salem witch crisis is that so many of the historical records not only still exist, but have been scanned and made available online for anyone who wishes to see them on a web archive maintained by the University of Virginia. When the magistrates were examining witnesses, they wrote down everything that was said, just like on an episode of "Law and Order." So many of the courtroom scenes in Conversion are actually adapted from what the people really said. The same goes for Ann’s apology; I reproduce that verbatim. On September 30, Penguin Classics will release an edited primary source reader that I put together called The Penguin Book of Witches, which contains many of the documents that I used to research this novel. For people interested in learning more about the reality behind the fiction of witchcraft in North America, it will be a fascinating read.
A major motion picture based on Conversion is in the works. Can you tell us anything about it?
I’m sworn to secrecy at this point, I’m afraid. But I will say that it’s tricky to type with crossed fingers.
What projects are next for you?
I’m finishing up a new novel, tentatively called The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen, about an NYU film student in present day New York City who meets and falls in love with a mysterious girl who needs his help. Together they have to solve a historical crime, but it turns out the girl is more involved than they could have imagined. That book should appear from Penguin Teen in 2015. I’m also starting to think a lot about pirates.
Author photo credit Laura Dandaneau.